Sydney suburbs in lockdown, new border curbs after COVID outbreak

Sydney’s northern beaches area enters lockdown as Australian states, territories tighten restrictions on arrivals from New South Wales.

People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing clinic at Mona Vale Hospital in the wake of a new outbreak in the Northern Beaches area of Sydney, Australia, December 18, 2020 [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Authorities in Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) have put about a quarter of a million people in Sydney’s northern beach suburbs into a strict lockdown and restricted gatherings across the rest of the city in a bid to contain a growing coronavirus outbreak.

NSW, which incorporates Sydney, recorded 30 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, taking a cluster that emerged in Sydney’s northern beaches area to 70, with some cases still under investigation.

Until Wednesday, Australia had gone more than two weeks without any local transmission and had lifted most restrictions before Christmas. The outbreak in Australia’s most populous state prompted states and territories to reimpose border restrictions, sending holiday travel plans for thousands into chaos.

Sydney’s northern beach suburbs entered a strict lockdown on Saturday, with residents only permitted to leave their homes for five basic reasons: medical care, exercise, grocery shop, work or for compassionate care reasons.

On Sunday, NSW’s Premier Gladys Berejiklian further tightened curbs, announcing that public gathering across the rest of Sydney will be limited, with household gatherings capped at 10 participants and hospitality venues at 300, among other restrictions.

“Police will obviously have a more visible presence to ensure that everybody does the right thing to keep us all safe,” Berejiklian said at a televised news conference.

She also urged people in the greater Sydney area – home to more than five million people – to wear masks in public, although it was not mandatory.

The authorities do not know the origin of the virus in the northern beaches cases, which genome testing suggests is a United States strain.

“It is a concern to us that health experts are yet to identify how the cluster was transmitted into the community or hot it started,” Berejiklian said.

Authorities believe the initial transmission sites were two clubs at Avalon Beach, but have named more than 30 subsequent potential transmission sites, from gyms, banks and post offices to supermarkets and pharmacies, and advised people who have visited the sites to be tested.

Hospitals in the affected suburbs and pop-up testing sites have been inundated with many people waiting hours to be tested.

Other states have meanwhile acted to prevent the cases jumping borders, with Western Australia banning anyone from NSW entering the state from Sunday onwards.

Victoria is expected to further toughen border curbs amid an influx of people from NSW who have rushed to leave the state ahead of Christmas.

The island state of Tasmania also imposed a 14-day quarantine for all Sydney arrivals, resulting in the cancellation of the annual Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race for the first time in its history.

“We are bitterly disappointed to cancel the race this year, especially considering the plans and preparations we had put in place to have a COVID-safe race,” Cruising Yacht Club commodore Noel Cornish said in announcing the cancellation.

The race, first held in 1945, was scheduled to begin December 26 as part of a Boxing Day tradition in Australia. The yachts leave Sydney Harbor amid a huge spectator fleet of boats and travel down the east coast of New South Wales state en route to the island state of Tasmania and its capital Hobart.

Australia has avoided the worst of the pandemic due to border closures, lockdowns, widespread testing and social distancing. It has reported just more than 28,000 coronavirus cases and 908 deaths since the pandemic began.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies